“Ought” vs “is”: Socrates and Callicles


One of the most momentous conversations in history you’ve never heard about took place between Socrates and a man named Callicles, and is recorded in Plato’s Gorgias. It is a surprisingly moving portrayal of a man who tries to describe the world as it is but, upon prompting, reveals how much he yearns for the way it ought to be. Although it took place 2,400 years ago, the conversation is timeless and very modern. I think it describes many of us today.

Lions and sheep

As usual, Socrates is going around asking people to define “justice” and to expose, as was his wont, their confusion and ignorance. Callicles decides to have a go.

He proceeds to give a sort of genealogy of the concepts just and unjust. The law of nature is that the stronger and better dominate the weaker and worse. The lions feast on the sheep. That is natural justice. (Compare: Thucydides, writing at about the time the dialogue would have taken place, about the genocide of Melos.)

The weak, the sheep, don’t like that, of course, so they get together and call what the strong do unjust. By implication, what they themselves do is just. Collectively as a herd, the sheep want to dominate the lions. So whereas nature is on the side of the strong and the lions, convention is on the side of the weak and the sheep.

Influence on Nietzsche

To many of you, this rings a bell. Yes, this is where Nietzsche got his ideas for his Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche took his metaphors of lions, sheep, herds, slaves and so forth from Callicles, then spun his theory. It was that the sheep banded together to invert the natural concepts of good and bad, strong and weak, motivated by a festering rage for which Nietzsche used the French word ressentiment.

Relevance to Darwin

Socrates being Socrates, of course, he goes on to needle Callicles about the precise meaning of words in order to poke a hole in his argument. He asks Callicles to clarify the terms “better” and “stronger”. Are they the same?

Callicles has to admit that they are not. And off they go, debating what that means.

Today, of course, we know that Callicles was looking for a better word: not strong or good but  fit. Not fit as in ‘toned from the gym’ but as in ‘survival of the fittest’. The fittest, according to Darwin, are not the strongest or the best but the most adapted.

The law of nature that Callicles refers to is therefore evolution. It is the tautological observation that those who are better adapted to the prevailing circumstances will leave more of themselves (ie, their genes) behind than those who are worse adapted.

Gibe at democracy

Callicles and Socrates go on to mock democracy (Athens was an even more direct democracy than America is today). Democracy to them is the inversion of nature, the herd of sheep ruling the lions, the weak dominating the strong, the inferior getting their revenge on the superior.

Yearning for what ought to be

But the dialogue between Callicles and Socrates becomes more moving than anything Nietzsche did with it. That’s because during the conversation it becomes clear that Callicles is a sophisticated and sensitive man who’s trying to describe how the world is while simultaneously being sad about it and yearning for how things ought to be.

He’s confused and bitter, about many things. He’s angry at Socrates for needling him, but also because he already foresees (correctly, of course) that the democratic herd of sheep will condemn the lion Socrates. And he hates himself for having to suck up to the herd, to the Athenians, to make his living.

He also hates seeing the fit succeed whether or not they are also good. In other words, he has the ideal of justice in his head as though it were an archetype. Like most of us, he’s frustrated. That’s all that Plato definitely establishes in this dialogue.

19 thoughts on ““Ought” vs “is”: Socrates and Callicles

  1. A:
    Good to be back. This post is a gem. I often experience such feelings in my work and when I read the news. There is such wisdom in these ancient works; rich food for thought that causes pause; engenders measured thought, and keeps the mind open for new ideas and a hunger to engage in quality discussions with others. Why is there such an apparent gap between the lions and crowds of sheep on the one hand, and those that engage in thoughtful dialog on the other? Shouldn’t those who are leading us possess such wisdom?

    How do you cope with the sea of idiots that are often at the controls? Unfortunately, I often default to sarcasim or humor to deal with it, because it is so tiring to have a discussion with those who do not share a desire for such quality dialog. I am no Callicles, and not very well-read on the great thinkers, but that often leaves people like me in a third grouping, looking at the well-read thinkers on the one hand, and the idiots on the other. Was there such an identifiable third group in the ancient world?



    • “Unfortunately, I often default to sarcasim or humor to deal with it,…”

      Humor is the only weapon we have, isn’t it? I deploy it ruthlessly to stay sane. When my humor fails me, so does, arguably, my sanity.

      I think we in the “third” group have always been the majority. But silent (until today, when we blog). Studying history, one tends to hear from the idiots and the thinkers, because they left things behind to be studied.

  2. While it would be seemingly ideal to be ruled be Plato’s benevolent “Philosopher Kings” in reality all non-democratic government ultimately becomes one sort or another of fascist tyranny.

    The sheep have gotten together to kill the Lion that was terrorizing them.

    Democracy as we all learned is not the best government, it is the least of all evils.

    • Absolutely. Indeed, Socrates was lucky, as compared to Marx, that nobody has ever systematically tried out his ideas in practice. Imagine we were to start a government modeled on Plato’s “Republic”! I think Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World” tried to imagine what would happen.

  3. I’m trying to imagine Ayn Rand joining the conversation. I’m thinking she wouldn’t have anything new to add, but we know on which side of the debate to find her. I suppose she would provide a story (mythos) to illustrte the point. [Am I using mythos correctly?]

    • I would say Yes, you’re using Mythos correctly–provided she tells a good, timeless story that sticks. Her Howard Roarks and John Galts and the rest do, sort of, have mythical traits.

  4. After a 12th grader, in a US High school to the far side of the East coast,
    had stood up to my face, like Saul to Peter, and insisted that all houses in Denmark were made of wood – he knew that for a fact! – and that Denmark was the capital of Sweden, I left class dazed and confused.

    I was offered advice honoring God knows how many years of human history when my teacher, trying to lift the gloom from my young mind, reminded me that some philosopher had said something to the fact that: “In this life we either go crazy or we begin to laugh… you better begin laughing”

    That day I just pondered the advice.

  5. I googled around and did not find it, but it sounds like it could be from Nietzsche (who did laugh but then went crazy) or Oscar Wilde (except he would have said it with a witty twist) or Twain, or Goethe, or….

    How silly of that friend of yours to think that Denmark is the capital of Sweden, when of course it is an island in Finland.

  6. Perhaps “lions” and “sheep”, as defined for the purposes of your post, might be redefined as the minority “lions” representing what ought to be ie “just” and “good”; and the majority “sheep” representing “what is”, (“the conventional wisdom”, or “going with the flow”) although the sheep represent what they believe in as “just” and “good”, even though not, in fact.

    However, what the “lions” call “good” or “just”, and what the sheep call “good” or “just”, however different, may come within the boundaries of the belief system which both hold.

    In a war, “lions” and “sheep” may disagree vehemently about the desirable tactics and strategy, or even the war’s objects; but both assume unquestioningly that the war is just.

    For “lions” to advocate walking away from the war because it is unjust, would be beyond the acceptable boundaries of disagreement with the “sheep”.

    Hence, “lions” may merely be “sheep” in “lion’s” clothing.

  7. The concepts of just and unjust are not fixed in time. Take as an example – hanging for extreme crimes (usually murder). In the UK, the Lions (Members of Parliament) abolished hanging as unjust. At the time it was abolished, the Sheep (i.e. the majority of voters) were against hanging (I believe). Once you show that this has no effect on the crime rate and allows you to release innocent murderers wrongly convicted, I believe the majority now agree this is just. The line was moved by the Lions and the Sheep take time to catch up and accept this. This type of decision is actually a demonstration of good judgement by the Leaders (or Lions), which is not always the behaviour exhibited by our (Lions) in the legislature of democratic countries.

    I am not quite sure where I am going with this comment, but I think the main point is that the line between just and unjust does move over time (“ought” becomes “is”). Should this be done by the Lions (as Leaders taking decisions, which can be radical) or by the Sheep (who will often be more conservative), somehow there needs to be a balance so that neither group moves too far or too fast (= checks and balances in a normal democracy).

    The danger is that a noisy and rich minority of Sheep can dominate and buy enough Lions needed to get policies changed, and all the Lions and Sheep follow. This is the tyranny of the minority and everyone must fight against this type of behaviour in any democracy. There are many examples of this in history, like the Nazis who were democratically elected in Germany.

    In a well-functioning and adaptable democracy the best of the “ought” will become “is” over time. That is a natural evolution of society and we all want this to happen so that modern civilization (as an organism) adapts and does not die. As Darwin saw, change is inevitable, adapting to the change is required for survival or an organism will cease to exist. You can apply this thinking to a civilization, which is a natural organism, and only a “fit” or “adaptable” civilization will survive.

    Who knows, our ideas may change in the future, the “fit” civilization may no longer be based on a democracy and civilization may adapt and evolve to some other form in order to survive. I would hope that any such development would lead human beings to a “better” type of civilization and not down an evolutionary cul-de-sac, but then I am always an optimist and I have not defined “better”!

    • “Ought becomes Is over time”: That’s a profound and profoundly optimistic idea. Possibly so.

      But: You then take another leap and assume that “just” = “fit”–ie, that societies that become more just over time are the ones who survive in the game of natural selection, thus making all of human civilization more just over time. That’s extremely optimistic.

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